Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are turning into Oscars. This week they peek under the plumage of Darren Aronofsky’s bloody ballet, Black Swan.
Ben! How the hell are ya? I’m glad we’re kicking off this season’s Oscarbation series with Black Swan because it’s a nice transition for us; you and I have basically become theater critics since summer, so a movie that grapples with the stage—ballet, specifically—is a nice way for us to get back into moving pictures.
So, first things first: how about the dancing here, huh? Last year, we saw Nine (sorry to remind you!) and got to gab about how Rob Marshall’s MTV editing style totally sucks, especially during dance scenes. Aronofsky might not adopt the Astairian point-and-shoot style to which I’m partial, but I thought the way he filmed the jetés, pirouettes and other whatnots here, especially in that opening nightmare, was perfect: his cuts didn’t pander to attention deficits, but captured, and heightened, the emotions expressed in the dancers’ movements.
And, this is a very emotional movie, no? I felt like it was all intense close-ups, often shot by a shaky camera in a widescreen that wasn’t expansive but extra-constricting. It made everything feel highly personal, really subjective. What do you think—Natalie Portman’s chaste character, the put-upon ballerina flirting with her dark side (represented by Mila Kunis, the Faith to her Buffy): the most fragile, frigid and vulnerable female role since Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion? Female sexual repression is a very old-fashioned theme, but I think that’s kind of the point here: with his story about the pressures to be sexy and seductive put on a girl elevated to stardom, Aronofsky is retelling Swan Lake in a contemporary idiom—and medium! That is, he’s putting a 21st Century spin on the 19th Century idea of the defiled virgin.
On its surface, Black Swan depicts the burdens of ballet (some might argue the clichés?): the competitiveness, the sexual aggression, the controlling stage moms, the infantilized adults. But Aronofsky seems more interested in female performers in general, fashioning a kind of dude-feminist critique of an industry that demands impossible perfection of women—of their bodies, of their talents—to the point that it drives them to suicide after it makes them crazy: thus, the way reality slowly slips away from Portman, her hallucinations of a deteriorating body. It also gives the movie a metacinematic dimension: is Black Swan also about how Winona Ryder’s career got stolen from her? Or Barbara Hershey’s, for that matter? (For those at home, Ryder plays the former star pushed out by Portman’s ascendance; Hershey, her mother.)
But what I liked most about Black Swan—aside from the Tchaikovsky score, which helps Aronofsky achieve some of the gravitas for which he’s striving; shit, you could slather The Hangover in Tchaikovsky and I’d kinda like it—was the way it turned Bloomberg’s anodyne New York into a minefield, a real hotbed of paranoia! and terror! I loved how that makeshift alley built of construction scaffolding could become a Street of Horror; how the shiny, automated subway cars hosted scenes whose creepiness—thanks, in one, to a lick-lipping, dick-tapping pervert—were on a par with something out of Jacob’s Ladder. What was your favorite part of Black Swan, Ben? I have a feeling it wasn’t the ballet music.
Heya Henry. I guess I’ve changed a lot since we last Oscarbated together, because the ballet scenes really were my favorite parts of Black Swan. Like you said, Aronofsky keeps us on a tight leash, exposed to the accelerating shattering of Nina’s (Portman) mind. The intensely subjective storytelling begins with that opening nightmare and never lets up; even in the next scene, as she commutes to Lincoln Center, we watch the world over her shoulders, like we’re playing a girly version of Metal Gear Solid. Nina’s ability to perform both the roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan hinges on her capacity to become sensual and Black Swan-ish in real life, to stop being a pure little girl and become a sexual adult. That much is clear, over-determined even. There’s another layer of meta in there, though.
The film, too, which is so riddled with tension and fear and suspense, needs to become sensual, to cut loose, and it only really manages to do so in the dancing scenes, as the camera whips, pans and glides in disorienting and exhilarating long takes. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique is in every way performing a choreography that stays in step with Nina’s: rigorous control alternating with wild abandon. Also keeping up this tight-then-free pace are writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin. Did you notice how every single moment of success was immediately bowled over by renewed tension and anxiety, which mounted-mounted-mounted to another release and then renewed fear? Like when Nina calls her mother from the bathroom stall to announce her casting as the Swan Queen, bawling and laughing and barely keeping it together—that laughter was infectious: I haven’t felt so happy for a character in a film since, oh, at least The Messenger—and turns around to see the word “WHORE” in redrum lipstick on the mirror. This only amplifies the sensation of being trapped in Nina’s hellish experience: every time she takes the right kind of step in the correct direction, the film’s tone lightens and become more nimble, and then turns stiff and skittish as her mind clamps down on her body. Basically what I’m saying is: Black Swan is like the White Swan, transforming into the Black Swan during the ballet sequences.
It’s also a lot like Carlos Saura’s Carmen, with its narrative of onstage perfection only achievable through parallel real-life experiences. (Are both films just lavish ads for method acting?) I was also reminded of innumerable movies about doubled women: Vertigo not so much, but definitely Persona and Images. And of course Mulholland Drive, as both films disorientingly introduce impenetrable slippages between vivid dreams and surreal waking lives, feature their gorgeous stars in very disturbing masturbation scenes, and activate (not so) latent lesbian fantasies. As for Hershey playing the mother of all mothering mothers, Brian De Palma’s Carrie repeatedly came to mind. This seems as good an opportunity as any to mention one of the smaller pleasures in Aronofsky’s film: its reliance on manipulative techniques borrowed from cheesy horror movies—the fake blood, the shock cuts, the mangled figures appearing briefly in mirrors, the monster movie CGI. Speaking of non-normative sexualities analogized as monstrous mutations, Nina and her mother’s manic habit of clipping her fingernails and disguising her back wounds where feathers had burst through—often in their Upper West Side apartment bathroom—were basically an all-female version of identical scenes involving Angel (Ben Foster) in X-Men: The Last Stand. Finally from my box of references, the ballet director’s (Vincent Cassel) method-y assertion that more regular self-plucking will help Nina master her Black Swan was an allusion to Sook-Yin Lee’s transcendent orgasm near the end of Shortbus, right? Black Swan certainly curled my toes.
Categories Baited: Best Picture, Actress in a Leading Role (Natalie Portman), Actress in a Supporting Role (Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey), Actor in a Supporting Role (Vincent Cassel), Directing (Darren Aronofsky), Art Direction (David Stein), Cinematography (Matthew Libatique), Costume Design (Amy Westcott), Makeup (Judy Chin).
(photo credit: Niko Tavernise)